What should you keep an eye out for at the Volta a Catalunya (March 20-26)
He’s back! Having spent the last month or so altitude training in South Africa and pondering how best to respond to the whirlwind of press surrounding Team Sky at the moment, Chris Froome will return to racing at the Volta a Catalunya for the first time since finishing sixth overall at the Herald Sun Tour six weeks ago.
Usually Froome has already registered an overall victory in a stage race this deep into the season, so he’ll be keen to put in a performance that proves his form and disheartens his rivals, especially following the impressive recent showings from Nairo Quintana (Movistar) at the Tirreno-Adriatico and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) at Paris-Nice.
It’s not a race he’s had much success in in the past – his highest finish to date is just sixth in 2014 – but he seems well suited to this year’s route.
A strong Team Sky squad for a long team time trial
Team Sky have selected the kind of squad that suggests they intend to spend a lot of the race at the front of the peloton.
Supporting Froome will be his key domestique Wout Poels (who also returns from a lengthy absence having not competed since mid-February), Mikel Landa (who showed promising form at the Tirreno), Mikel Nieve (who was a key instrument in Sergio Henao’s Paris-Nice victory last week) and Diego Rosa (who will ride with Froome for the first time since signing for the team)
It’s just as well that Froome has such a strong team with him, as the GC is likely to undergo a huge sorting out on stage two’s team time trial, which is the race’s first in the discipline since 2005, and is especially long at 41.3km. Sky will be hoping for a better showing than the disaster at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Strong climbing competition
Leading the challenge against Sky once more will be Alberto Contador, who brings with him strong racing legs having nearly dethroned Sergio Henao as Paris-Nice champion last week, and a similarly impressive line-up of climbers with Bauke Mollema and Jarlinson Pantano at his disposal.
Adam Yates will be one to watch, with the Volta a Catalunya providing for him a chance to translate his great form into a first ever World Tour stage race podium, following his forced withdrawal from Tirreno-Adriatico whilst second on the overall classification.
Also likely to be in contention will be Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) – who starred in this race two years ago with three stage wins and a second on the GC – 2013 winner Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), and the likes of Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) if they can find some better form than they’ve managed recently.
As usual for this race, the parcours is characterised by lumpy roads across Catalunya, that provide plenty of chances puncheurs to attack, and climbers to contest the GC even when the race is not in the Pyrenees.
There isn’t a single straightforward sprinter’s stage – stage one and six feature too much climbing, despite their flat runs to the finish; stage four is less difficult, although a pesky late climb around 15km from the finish could put pay to their hopes; stage three finishes atop La Molina, an ascent which always brings out the top climbers; even stage seven’s Barcelona-circuiting finale includes eight ascents of the category three Alt de Montjuic.
Such a route explains why, of the top sprinters, only Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) will be present, while puncheurs like Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) and Ben Hermans (BMC) will be licking their lips.
The key moment in the GC will be the end of stage five, when the riders will head to Tortosa to take on Lo Port.
Unusually for the Volta a Catalunya for being both long (8.4km) and very steep (averaging a whopping 9%), this is likely to be the race’s main spectacle, with the time gaps set to be very big, and with only a quality calibre of rider capable of competing for the stage.
That this is one for the pure climbers is made clear by the fact that the winner here when the Volta last used it in 1991 was Luis Herrera. There’s enough road here for any climber lagging after the team time trial and any other losses endured earlier to put themselves back in contention for the GC.